John Feehery: Speaking Engagements


Ten Rules on Taking Back the Majority

Posted on January 11, 2019
I gave a talk to the Ripon Society's 39er group last night and I thought I would share my remarks (as written, but not necessarily as delivered) with you.


Thanks Jim.


Jim gave me 10 minutes to talk, so I am going to use my time to give you my ten rules to be more effective while you are in the House Minority.


I never worked in the Senate and so I can’t give you any special insights into how the Upper Body works, other than to say dealing with the Upper Chamber can be a frustrating experience whether you are in the Minority or Majority.


As way of background, I worked for Bob Michel in the last five years of his tenure as the longest serving Minority Leader in the history of the House.


Bob was the finest political figure I have ever met in my life, and he was a role model to me in my personal and professional life.


The first three years I worked for Bob, it was in the final three years of the George H.W. Bush Administration.   Bush didn’t realize that he was going to be a one-term President, but I guess that’s the nature of one-term Presidents.  They don’t know until it’s too late.


The last two years of my time were spent in the first two years of the Clinton Administration.  Bob was much more aggressive in defining the terms of the debate and we did a lot of things to put the Clinton team on its heels.


I will spend my time today talking about governing in the minority when you have the White House.


Here are my ten rules:


10) Sell the White House:  It’s tempting to think that just because you are in the minority, you have no role in the governing process.  And that’s how the majority wants you to feel, unless of course, it’s time to raise the debt limit.


But the fact is, your President is going to be signing legislation, and for him to be able to declare victory on the legislation he signs, he is going to need substantial support from the GOP Conference.  That means that Republicans have to do more than just hold their collective noses and vote yes.  It means they have to work exceptionally hard to get provisions in the final piece of legislation that they can sell back home.  The President and his team, especially this President, don’t have any special knowledge about what sells back in your district.  It’s up to you and your boss to tell them your priorities.


9) Know the Rules:  In 1981, House Republicans were able to defeat the previous question, write their own rule, and bring up Ronald Reagan’s budget, which included the famous Kemp-

Roth tax proposal.


House Rules are meant to do two things:  Help the majority works its will and protect the rights of the Minority.  Only by truly understanding the procedural rules that govern the House can members truly use them to their advantage.


I am not a Rules expert but my first job on the Hill was working for Bill Pitts, who was Bob Michel’s floor strategist and rules expert.  He taught me how to appreciate the rules for what they truly are:  a great shield against majority aggression.


He also taught me how to go to the Parliamentarian’s office about the proper procedures, about what amendments will be germane and which won’t, and also what language and images can be used on the House floor and what can’t.


8) Use the Floor (Creatively):  Talking about the floor, when you are in the minority, how you use your time on the floor is incredibly important.  From the very start of the day, with one minute speeches, through the floor debate, to Special orders at the end of the day, an organized team that consistently promotes unifying messages that resonate with the American people can have an impact.  About a million people are watching C-Span at any one time, so for your members, it is a very valuable resource that shouldn’t be wasted.


When I worked for Mr. Michel, I organized a group of Members called the Theme Team.   That’s where I first met George W. Bush as we tried to help George H.W. Bush get himself reelected.  I wrote several speeches, including one that accused Bill Clinton of being an liar 15 times in one minute (which he was by the way), that got picked up nationally.  It didn’t change the course of the election, but it at least it got noticed by the national media.


Floor debate is another important way to make points on legislation.  Republicans tend to like to use charts to make their points.  There was a chart of Hillary Clinton’s health care proposal that became famous because it graphically exposed its complexity.


Debate on the House floor is constitutionally protected so you can say just about anything as long as it complies with House rules and is germane to the debate.  That’s what makes the floor just a good place to make your case, especially when you are in the minority.


7) Be Bipartisan:  This might be counter-intuitive, because when you are in the minority, it seems so easy to be ideologically pure.  But here is the truth:  You can’t actually win without being bipartisan.  The numbers are such that without help from some Democrats, you will never, ever get to 218.


So, I would urge all of your members to find Democrats to team with, especially vulnerable Democrats who want to show their independence from Nancy Pelosi.


Obviously, Ronald Reagan would never have passed his tax cuts without Boll Weevil Democrats.


But I will give you another example.  In 1990, Bob Michel led a coalition of Republicans and Democrats, including Steve Solarz, to authorize President Bush use of force resolution to eject Saddam Hussein from Kuwait.


Had that resolution failed, it would have proved hugely embarrassing for the President and would have made the military operation much more complicated and constitutionally suspect.


It wouldn’t have happened without bipartisan backing.


6) If You Can’t Say Anything Nice About This White House, Don’t Say Anything at All:  When you are in the White House, taking pot shots at your own President is counterproductive.


It might make you feel good and it certainly makes the press happy, but unless you are going to successfully lead an insurrection that will remove the President from office, when you vocally criticize the President from a position of weakness, your words will be used against you.


Like President Trump or not, he is the standard bearer of the GOP.  And when he is attacked by fellow Republicans, it only makes a bad situation worse.


I remember in 1990, when Ed Rollins, who was head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, urged House Members to actually run against President Bush because of the Budget agreement where Bush broke his no new taxes pledge.


Rollins said that he efforts help to keep GOP losses to a minimum.  My view was that the confusion hurt the President, hurt the GOP Congress and made it easier for Bill Clinton to gain the White House.


5)  United You Stand (A Chance):  Talking about the 1990 budget summit, Republicans split on whether to support their own President, and the result was a final deal that was basically written by the Democratic Majority and shoved down the throats of George H.W. Bush.


If Republicans don’t stay united, they become less relevant to the White House, and eventually, they will be frozen out of negotiations.


Look at what is happening with the Democratic strategy to pick off Republicans to vote for spending bills that reopen the government.  When we lose folks to obvious political-exercises, we show we are vulnerable.  When we stay united, when we bring our votes to the table as a unit, we are better able to drive a better bargain for our constituents and our supporters.


4) Your Constituents Need More Help, Not More Laws:    The best political strategy comes not from well-heeled donors, but from the folks back home.  And what they will tell you is not that we need more laws, but that we need more help.


I think that is a good theme.


And in this year where I think very little gets done legislatively, we need to focus on getting help back to communities, whether it is help understanding the new tax provisions going into effect this year, or help with accessing the new opioid funding that was passed last year, or with health care costs and how to handle those issues.


Constituent service is the most underrated part of a Representatives reelection strategy.  And that becomes even more important when you are in the Minority.


The fact is that your prized piece of legislation most likely won’t become law with Nancy Pelosi as Speaker.  But if you have the right caseworkers, you can provide enough help to enough constituents to remain popular in your district.


3)  How I learned to stop worrying and learn to Love the Senate:  I am a man of the House.  And as a man of the House, I have little if any affection for the Upper Body.  In fact, I agree with John Dingell’s proposal to rid the Constitution of the Senate.


However, my attitude tends to change when the House flips, and if you haven’t noticed, the House has flipped.


The Senate serves a couple of valuable purposes.  First, it will stop many bad pieces of legislation that emanate from the House, especially now that Nancy Pelosi is running the place.


Second, it will spend a lot of time confirming Donald Trump’s judges.  Say what you will about Donald Trump, but his judicial picks have been top-notch.


From a legislative perspective, it makes plenty of sense to get to know your counterparts in the Senate.  It makes sense trying to find ways to coordinate on legislative items, on things that will help your district and on projects that will help your state.


The fact is that you in House don’t have much power and they in the Senate do.


From a communications perspective, coordinating with the Senate is essential.  I know it is not fashionable, but if want to have a bigger bang for your buck (or your press conference) coming up with a strategy that includes the Senate is well-worth the time, no matter how annoying the Senate might be.


2)  9/10s of any legislative job is showing up to Committee:  Woodrow Wilson once wrote:   "it is not far from the truth to say that Congress in session is Congress on public exhibition, whilst Congress in its committee rooms is Congress at work."


It is at the committee level where the work of stopping the Democratic agenda must begin.


But for that to happen, your members have to show up at the Committee hearings and markups.


I remember in 1993, when Hillary Clinton was working hard to pass Hillary healthcare.  Because Bob Michel had worked so effectively with his ranking members, he came up with alternatives to her health care plan that proved to be much more popular than her plan.


The Democrats couldn’t move Hillary health care out of either Ways and Means or the Energy and Commerce Committee.   They didn’t have the votes.


It was a stunning victory for the GOP and it all happened because of the work at the Committee level.  It might not be sexy, but we have to be prepared to win every debate during Committee deliberation.  The Members have to ask good questions, offer good amendments and respond with superior arguments if we are going to get enough momentum to take back the House.


And finally, I call this the Ginger Rogers rule:  Ginger Rogers, in case you don’t know, was the accomplished dancer who was often paired with Fred Astaire.  As one critic put it, Sure he (Fred Astaire) was great, but don’t forget Ginger Rogers did everything he did…backwards and in high heels.”


In the House minority, you have to do everything the majority does, but backwards and in high heels.


In other words, to get back the majority, you have work harder than the majority.


And it is not always easy to work that hard.  There is always the temptation to coast.  Hey, we aren’t the majority.  Let the other folks handle all of the tough decisions.


But if you want to take back the House, you have to battle to change the course of history.


You have get up every morning with a burning desire to win each debate, come up with better amendments, do the hard work of legislating.


It is especially easy to stay in the background when you have somebody like Donald Trump in the White House.


It isn’t easy to always defend this guy.  He says stupid things.  He does stupid things.  And the other side is relentless in attacking him and those that defend him.


But if you want to take back the House, you can’t blame Trump for your troubles.


You have to outwork the other team.


I remember one Saturday when I was getting ready to leave the Congress.  I went into the office to clean out my desk and start my career in the private sector.


Our offices were empty.


As I was leaving, I say George Kundanis enter the building.


George is the chief floor person for Nancy Pelosi.


He was going in the work to figure out a way to take back the House.


That was in 2005 and a year later, the Democrats took back the House.  Nobody thought they could do it, but because they worked harder than the Republican Majority, they were able to win one year later.


There is no substitute for hard work when it comes to winning.  Just ask Ginger Rogers.